Watching Neil Patrick Harris in this show is like watching an explosion in slow motion. Something along the lines of the Big Bang. Between the choreography (and I use the term loosely) the wigs, the several costume changes, the non stop songs and verbiage it is a wonder that there is any of Harris left standing at the end of the show.
The slowest thing he does is enter. He is lowered onto the stage encased in a wild Egyptian-like creation. Once he is unstrapped he catapults onto the stage strutting his gold lame boots and fling his long blonde locks like a 1980’s rock star. After licking a guitar, the stage, and giving us the history of the Belasco Theatre with the warning that the ghost of David Belasco himself may be lurking in the audience right box, Hedwig poses the question How did some slip of a girlyboy from communist East Berlin become the internationally ignored song stylist barely standing before you?
And we are off into the past while Hedwig’s ex-boyfriend, Tommy, is occasionally overheard (via a door in the back of the set) blasting his “Tour of Atonement” that continually omits any mention of Hedwig’s name even though s/he wrote all the music.
Back to the biography – East German mother and American GI father. Raised in East Germany and listened to the tiny radio that had to be played in the oven because their apartment was so small. At the center of the set (a fictional left over from the equally fictional Hurt Locker: the Musical that opened and closed in one act, presenting the opportunity for Hedwig to suck her way into a venue) a beat up shell of a car sits and Hedwig pops it open to simulate her radio. Toni Tenille, Debby Boone, Ann Murray then Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie – and you can’t help but think there is a little of each of them in Hedwig.
A decade or so later as he is sunning himself near the Wall and enjoying the scent of a nearby MacDonald’s he is approached by a candy-toting American soldier named Luther who soon sweets him off his feet. A ring and a wig later the sex change operation is agreed upon. In order to marry there has to be a physical exam. But the operation does not go so well – hence the title of the show.
My sex change operation got botched
My guardian angel fell asleep on the watch
Now all I got is a Barbie doll crotch
I got an angry inch.
A year later s/he is alone in Kansas, having been deserted by her Sergeant. S/he is living in a trailer park watching the Wall come down on television, still wearing the same wig. Her life and her hairline are receding. Suddenly she notices a trove of unopened wigs the Sergeant gave to her. Each is a Hed-wig. She is electrified. Out comes the makeup and a future is possible now!
The next few years are filled with a lot of getting by I had lost my job at the base PX. I had lost my gag reflex. You do the math. Eventually s/he meets Tommy (She is his babysitter eager to please). They become a couple, then singers together, then hugely successful. But he leaves her when he discovers her Angry Inch. The latest reunion was an accident, a mistaken limo encounter followed by a ride all over Manhattan followed by a little oral sex and a car crash. Hence the Atonement Tour.
In the telling of the final tale Hedwig collapses. Suddenly everything is really and truly too, too much. S/he is stripped and then strips. Off come the accoutrements that are passed over to Yitzhak (Lena Hall) for recycling. Hedwig leaves us and fades into the theatrical sunset.
It is an astonishing piece of work, and I wish that I had liked it more than I did. I know. I am the ONE person in town who walked out thinking that this was our Tony MC on speed cut with nitroglycerin and loaded with a burst charge. Everything was technically perfect and delivered with machine gun speed. But somehow it felt less like a performance and more like it was a fast rehearsal. And who knows? I saw this on a Wednesday and Harris could have been tired – that is part of the deal with theatre, you see. It is live. Harris is a mighty force (and Lena Hall as his partner on and off the stage has an astonishing voice) and I will gladly go to any show in which he performs. I love his work. But I also know there are layers and layers to Hedwig. I didn’t see most of them, and I wanted to.
Perhaps, however, that was the exact intent. A Hedwig that was down, dirty and packing a galactic punch. In that case this production succeeded madly, but I myself was more shell shocked than blown away. Go figure.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch – Book by John Cameron Mitchell; music and lyrics by Stephen Trask; directed by Michael Mayer
WITH: Neil Patrick Harris (Hedwig), Lena Hall (Yitzhak) and Justin Craig, Matt Duncan, Tim Mislock and Peter Yanowitz (the Angry Inch).
Musical staging by Spencer Liff; sets by Julian Crouch; costumes by Arianne Phillips; lighting by Kevin Adams; wig and makeup design by Mike Potter; sound by Tim O’Heir; projections by Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; music supervisor/coordinator, Ethan Popp; music director, Justin Craig; vocal supervisor, Liz Caplan; company manager, Barbara Crompton; production management by Aurora Productions; production stage manager, Lisa Iacucci; associate producer, Mark Berger; executive producer, 101 Productions Ltd. Presented by David Binder, Jayne Baron Sherman, Barbara Whitman, Latitude Link, Patrick Catullo, Raise the Roof, Paula Marie Black, Colin Callender, Ruth Hendel, Sharon Karmazin, Martian Entertainment, Stacey Mindich, Eric Schnall and the Shubert Organization. At the Belasco Theater, 111 West 44th Street, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com. Through Aug. 17. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.